Leader Blues

Friday, January 12, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Beebe wants secrets out

Forty years ago this week, on the eve of his swearing in, Winthrop Rockefeller said his first act as governor would be to make public a State Police investigation of evil conditions inside the state penitentiary, which caused outgoing Gov. Orval E. Faubus to hand over the long-secret report almost literally as he was walking out the door. The bombshell made national news and set off a full decade of reform in the prisons.

Gov. Huckabee showed no such weakness as Faubus’ when it came to the Zeno report. Huckabee sat on it until the end. Neither will the repercussions be so far-reaching as the prison investigation. But it is no less heartening that Gov. Mike Beebe had the same admirable impulse as Winthrop Rockefeller: Let the truth shine.

Lary Zeno was a Huckabee friend whom the governor appointed in 2002 to a $75,000-a-year position on the state Parole Board. He resigned last year after an internal affairs investigation of his conduct by the Department of Community Correction. When the media sought the report to see what Zeno had done, Huckabee had the file sent to his office, where he claimed executive privilege. He has maintained that any file in his office is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as “working papers of the governor,” and that includes embarrassing or incriminating files in any office in the whole realm of government once he pulls it inside his office walls.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sued and the trial judge ruled that the governor’s act was illegal. Huckabee appealed the decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which had the effect of keeping the file secret until he left office. As attorney general, Beebe had to represent Huckabee in the case, but he said Thursday he always knew that the governor was wrong.
As the new plaintiff in the case, Gov. Beebe directed the new attorney general to drop the appeal. He told a Democrat-Gazette reporter to tell the newspaper’s attorneys to stop billing the paper because the case was closed. And there will be no more cases like it, he said. He will not try to hide public documents by pulling them into his office.

What a good message to send on your third day in office: Government will be open and accountable. How refreshing. And what of the Zeno file? All that Huckabee had said last year was that he saw nothing in the investigative report that was “an issue for me.” He would not have fired Zeno over any of it, he said.

The report carried allegations and “disclosures of fact” from female staff members that Zeno had harassed them sexually. He told one new female worker that he had two favorite things, “p***y and p***y.” He patted buttocks. His office computer had pictures of naked women and a man and off-color jokes. He abused the families of prisoners, sometimes shouting at them to “shut up,” and became furious with the staff when snacks were not brought to Parole Board meetings that he could box up and take home with him. He assured families that he would release their family members from prison although he did not have power to release them, which caused problems for parole officers when the prisoners were not released.

But the Rev.-Gov., as humorist Bob Lancaster used to label him, found no issues in the report that bothered him. No wonder then that he wanted to keep the report secret. Let us hope that this new broom Beebe continues to sweep so clean.